Secret spots: 20 amazing travel destinations you've never heard of

Every minute of every day of every week a Traveller writer is likely to be somewhere in the world experiencing a destination that will form the basis of a feature or cover story they and their editors hope will inspire readers.

It's a tough life, for sure. Many of those locations may be familiar to the well travelled among us, but, occasionally, our travel writers find themselves way off the heavily trodden tourist trail.

Traveller asked our leading writers to nominate one or more of those lesser-known places they have visited over the years, the sort of destinations  that are likely to be unfamiliar for even our most peripatetic, geographically knowledgeable readers. 

In commissioning this feature, however, for Traveller's editors  the nominated destinations needed to be not only obscure, but also genuinely amazing.

1 LENCOIS MARANHENSES, BRAZIL

Peering down from the plane, the Lencois Maranhenses appear to be a mirage. These blindingly white sand dunes should be clinging to a coastline somewhere. Instead, they appear unexpectedly in the middle of the flat plains of Maranhao state, the gleaming sand contrasting with the bright turquoise lakes nestling in between. Up close, they are no less spectacular.

They are named for their resemblance to laundry – the name means "bed sheets of Maranhao" – and the sand of these shifting dunes is blown in from the coast, about 25 kilometres away.

The freshwater pools appear during the rainy season and last for several months.

See parquelencois.
com.br/english.

- Ute Junker

2 TUMAKOHUA PASS, FAKARAVA ATOLL, TAHITI

A drift dive in Tumakohua Pass, at the southern end of the idyllic Fakarava Atoll in Tahiti's remote Tuamotu archipelago, is like a thrilling underwater fairground ride.

As you are carried between the open ocean and a turquoise lagoon, an entire ecosystem flashes by in the narrow, 25-metre-deep channel.

Visibility is exquisite – at least 60 metres – and, at times, it is like rushing along a corridor plastered with floor-to-ceiling shark wallpaper, with hundreds of toothy fish filling your vision.

See tetamanuvillage.pf.

- Daniel Scott

3  BOETTCHERSTRASSE, GERMANY

When it comes to high-impact architecture, this narrow, crooked alley puts many grand avenues to shame. In the 1920s and '30s, the city's richest magnate commissioned 10 extraordinary Expressionist buildings to line Boettcherstrasse, each with its own aesthetic.

The roughly textured bricks of the Paula Becker-Modersohn Haus, which celebrate the traditions of working by hand, contrast with the Haus Atlantis, which seems inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The interiors are also extraordinary, particularly the Himmelsaal, or sky room, that crowns Haus Atlantis.

The blue-and-white glass bricks set into its ceiling give a shimmering stained-glass effect.

See boettcherstrasse.de.

- Ute Junker

4  ELSEHUL, SOUTH GEORGIA ISLAND

The first point of arrival on this remote and craggy island, the mist-shrouded tiny bay of Elsehul, reveals wildlife in abundance. The beach is so packed it is rarely possible to land, necessitating a Zodiac cruise. Fur seals are everywhere, with pups by their mothers, adolescents playing in the rich kelp beds and adults fighting on the beach while king penguins and less imposing gentoos look on.

Macaroni penguins nest on impossible slopes above. Overhead, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses soar, while the spine-tingling cry of light-mantled sooty albatrosses echoes. This crowded crucible of life is the perfect sampler of the riches of the Southern Ocean.

See sgisland.gs.

- David McGonigal

5  BIGGE ISLAND, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Bigge Island is a tantalising ephemeral place because it exists only at low tide – the huge 10-metre Kimberley tidal range floods the site at other times. 

It was discovered by the expedition leader of what is now National Geographic Orion almost a decade ago, and a well-timed barefoot exploration along each sandy canyon and into every hidden cranny will never be forgotten.

The rock-art gallery of Wary Bay features an impressive creation figure competing for attention with contact art showing pipe-smoking sailors, presumably Dutch. The beach itself is tropically perfect, but the  tracks left by  crocodiles discourage swimming.

Because the island is separated from the mainland by six kilometres of Scott Strait, there are no feral animals and it is possible to see small monjon rock wallabies and shy northern quolls.

See expeditions.com.

- David McGonigal

An ancient city of many charms

6 YAZD, IRAN 

Sitting on the rooftop of a traditional caravanserai hotel, watching the sunset over the desert, seeing the adobe-brick buildings of Yazd fade from orange to burnt ochre, listening as a chorus of calls to prayer rings out from the local mosques, you can't help but fall completely for this friendly, fascinating Iranian city.

Set deep in the south-east of the country, a barren place of dusty plains and a hot sun, Yazd is brimming with culture, something you come to realise the moment you arrive and gaze at the Amir Chakhmagh complex, the huge set of archways that dominates the city skyline. Elsewhere, the spikes of minarets, the domes of mosques, and the fingers of traditional wind-catchers break the panorama of low-set adobe homes.

Yazd is known for its food, in particular its sweets. The local crowds flock daily to Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, a famed sweet shop where the ordering process is as complicated as the sugary treats are tasty. It's an experience. This is also a city well known for its silks and Persian carpets – some of the cheapest in the country.

There are villages that have been inhabited for thousands of years to explore on the city's outskirts; however, the true pleasure of a stay in Yazd is to simply wander its adobe-lined alleyways, chatting to friendly locals, ducking into mosques, taking shelter in teashops, and generally soaking up the atmosphere of a unique destination. 

- Ben Groundwater

Need to know: Australian citizens require a visa to enter Iran. Yazd is accessible by plane from Tehran with Iranian Air. In town, opt for a traditional hotel like Hotel Kohan, or Moshir Caravanserai. The best sweets are sold at Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, and there are a few great little shish-kebab shops underneath Amir Chakhmagh.

See yazd.com

Exploring a continental divide

7 NESGJA FISSURE, NORTH ICELAND

From above, the Nesgja fissure doesn't look like much – a watery trench reaching across boggy North Icelandic coastal plains, towards the Greenland Sea – but this almost unknown chasm, within 50 kilometres of the Arctic Circle, marks the dividing line between North American and Eurasian continental plates.

Formed by an earthquake, it was discovered in 2009 by dive operator Erlendur Bogason, after his car became stuck in the snow-encased canyon. For the few fortunate enough to dive or snorkel through the Nesgja fissure, enveloped in a thick dry-suit for warmth, the experience has many qualities of a dream.

Only three metres deep, the water is opalescent Caribbean blue and so clear that it appears like a tunnel with no end. On either side, a fine web of green algae clings to the volcanic rock, wafting like chiffon in a tropical breeze. 

While Iceland has better-known chasms, such as the Silfra fissure, nearer the capital Reykjavik, which attract thousands of visitors, less than 100 a year dive in Nesgja.

And with the island being one of the planet's youngest landmasses, widening by five centimetres a year where these continental plates collide, the experience can genuinely be called unique.

- Daniel Scott

Need to know: Dive or snorkel Nesgja with Erlendur Bogason's Strytan  Divecenter (strytan.is), staying at nearby Ytri-Vik farm. See farmholidays.is. Both are near Iceland's second-largest town, Akureyri, an hour's flight from Keflavik, with icelandair.com. For traditional Icelandic seafood dishes melded with Japanese cuisine, try Rub23 (rub23.is) in Akureyri.

8 PENINSULA VALDES, ARGENTINA

South American wildlife experiences do not begin and end on the Galapagos Islands or in the Amazon. Argentina's Peninsula Valdes offers some equally exciting encounters with marine critters.

From June to December, southern right whales cruise along the shores of the Patagonian peninsula, while its beaches are home to more elephant seals than any other continental location  in the world.

Up to 50,000 Magellanic penguins inhabit the coast of the World Heritage-listed nature reserve, burrowing at times just metres from car parks and roads.

But the violent stars of Peninsula Valdes are the orcas – all that awesome footage you have seen of killer whales beaching themselves to snatch sea lion pups was filmed here, at Punta Norte.

If you are lucky enough to witness it, it is one of the ocean's greatest dramas.

See enjoy-patagonia.org.

- Andrew Bain

9 PICOS DE EUROPA, SPAIN

A mountain range with a name that translates as the "Peaks of Europe" should surely have a higher profile, but Spain's beautifully compact Picos de Europa sit deeply in the shadow of the European Alps and the Pyrenees.

Strung just behind the country's north-west coast, and forming one of Spain's most spectacular landscapes, the limestone range earned its name because it was often the first bit of European land sighted by sailors crossing the Atlantic Ocean. 

Today, the mountains at the heart of Spain's first national park really deserve to be seen by more visitors. 

The Picos offer some incredible hiking, with the range split by the Garganta del Cares (Cares Gorge), where the limestone cliffs rise up to 1500 metres above the stream.

Cut into and sometimes through, the cliff is a vertiginous 11-kilometre trail that is among the most exhilarating day walks in Europe. The range is punctured with caves, and local cheesemakers use some of them, Roquefort style, to naturally mature the blue-veined cheese.

See picosdeeuropa.com.

- Andrew Bain

10  UPPER ANTELOPE CANYON, US

Most visitors come to the United States' south-west looking for the next big: the 1800-metre deep Grand Canyon, the 660-square-kilometre Lake Powell, the massive monoliths of Monument Valley. So it is ironic that the most spectacular sight in the region – one many people miss – is less than 200 metres long. Upper Antelope Canyon is something of an oddity in other ways too. Most canyons are  huge holes scooped out of the ground, but this is a narrow slot in a rock, a nondescript crevasse many would simply walk past.

Step inside, however, and you find yourself in a magnificent wonderland of sandstone, sculpted over millennia by the constant rushing of water. Corridors lead through the wave-washed rock that appears spun like fairy floss or pooled like frozen lava. Occasional shafts of sunlight punch through holes in the roof, setting the high cavern walls glowing like alabaster.

See navajonationparks.org.

- Ute Junker

11  MUI NE,VIETNAM

Once a sleepy strip of beaches in the Binh Thuan province of south-east Vietnam, Mui Ne has since received serious investment, but despite the number of resorts that have sprung up, high-rise hell has so far been avoided.

The real appeal of this destination lies in its proximity to off-kilter attractions. Thunder down colossal white sand dunes on a quad bike, ride  an ostrich around an enclosure, or walk on water at the Fairy Stream, a bizarre, sandy river winding through a dramatic red sandstone gorge.

Foodies will love it here. Sample fresh seafood straight off the boats at Hoa Thang Beach fishing village or haggle for fresh produce among the chaos of Phu Thuy markets.

This coastline also boasts some of the best surf breaks in Vietnam and is popular with kite and windsurfers, in particular.

See mui-ne.anantara.com.

- Guy Wilkinson

12  BRASOV, ROMANIA

Although Brasov is often used as a base for skiing and trekking in the surrounding mountains, the town itself resembles something from a slick period drama. Perhaps this explains the vaguely absurd Hollywood-style sign overlooking the main square, but if you ignore this small ignominy, you will find yourself lost in a maze of charming cobbled streets, baroque and gothic architecture and hidden  bars and restaurants.

Its central location makes it ideal for exploring the surrounding countryside, and nearby Poiana Brasov, Romania's top ski resort, is becoming increasingly popular  after extensive redevelopments in recent years.

See turism.brasovcity.ro.

- Guy Wilkinson

13  LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA

Set in a spectacular basin below three volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is impressive not just for its location and its character-filled, affordable accommodation, but for the culture contained in the villages that hug the rugged lakefront.

There are buzzing local markets in San Pedro, a pocket of hippie paradise in Santa Cruz, colonial architecture in Santiago Atitlan, and, passed among the villages and kept in people's homes on a rotation basis, a cigar-smoking wooden god called Maximon.

Tourists are allowed to pay Maximon a visit, provided that you can find out where he is.

See visitguatemala.com.

- Ben Groundwater

14 BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY, US

In retrospect, saying: "I think we've been spoiled by the scenery so far" was a little premature. After driving through Utah and Wyoming, the Beartooth Highway was the last stint on the road trip.

The mountain views shortly after leaving Cooke City are delightful – but there soon comes a severe escalation into the realms of outrageously intimidating.

It has been dubbed "the most beautiful road in America" for a very good reason. The Beartooth Highway, a section of US route 212, offers a meandering connection between the Yellowstone National Park and the great plains of Eastern Montana. From Cooke City to Red Lodge, the road snakes among  20 peaks topping 3660 metres, taking in a frankly greedy number of cliff-top lookouts and thundering waterfalls. It's when this feat of engineering braggadocio gets on top of the mountains, however, that a jabbering sense of awestruck wonder kicks in.

Even in high summer, huge mounds of snow sit alongside the patchwork splattering of lakes on the Alpine plateau.

The climb carries on across the mountain tops, spiralling above 3000 metres, before the descent into Montana. All that remains are death-defying switchbacks and a sure knowledge that this drive will be almost impossible to top.

- David Whitley

Need to know: From Sydney or Melbourne, fly a Qantas/Alaska Airlines codeshare  to Billings, Montana. Connections are in Los Angeles and Seattle. See qantas.com.au. The Cooke City Alpine Motel has solidly acceptable rooms from $105 (see cookecityalpine.com). For food, the bison burgers at the Red Box Car in Red Lodge are world-beaters (see beartoothhighway.com).

15  HWANGE NATIONAL PARK, ZIMBABWE

While not as well known as the Serengeti or the Okavango Delta, this game park in northern Zimbabwe fulfils all  the African fantasies, with its mix of savannah landscapes, huge herds of animals, and luxury tented accommodation.

The plains of Hwange, a short drive from Victoria Falls, heave with huge herds of elephant, kudus, prides of lions, and flocks of birds.

This is a national park in which you will find elephants coming to drink out of the swimming pool at your campsite as you watch in awe. And the best part?

There is almost no one else with whom to share it.

See classicsafaricompany.com.au.

- Ben Groundwater

16  LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, SWITZERLAND

Tucked up high in the Jura mountains, the small town of LaChaux-de-Fonds would be just another Swiss watchmaking town, were it not for the local passion for architecture.

The town's most famous son is modernist architect Le Corbusier, whose earliest buildings can still be visited today.

Many of them have a distinctly art-nouveau feeling, which fits with the wider townscape. The good burghers of La Chaux-de-Fonds threw themselves into the art nouveau craze and, to this day, the town has a spectacular collection of art-nouveau buildings.

The unlikely highlight is the crematorium, which is dramatically decorated with bronze and stained glass.

See myswitzerland.com.

- Ute Junker

17  THREE NATURAL BRIDGES, CHINA

Chongqing tends to exist in the shadows of its provincial neighbour, Chengdu (home of the panda and the hottest food in China), of which it was once part, but there is no denying that Chongqing boasts some extraordinary, yet little-known physical attractions, chief among them being the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Three Natural Bridges, 12 kilometres north of the city of Wulong.

To reach the bottom of the first of the massive stone bridges, Tian Long (Sky Dragon Bridge), it is necessary to take a glass-fronted elevator and walk the rest of the way deep into the valley, with the entire circuit taking about 90 minutes. At the bottom is a traditional pagoda-topped Chinese building that was the set of the film, Curse of the Golden Flower.

The compound is so convincing and complementary to its dramatic setting that it has been left in place. Even without the film set, the impact of the Three Natural Bridges is cinematic.

See wendywutours.com.au.

- Anthony Dennis

18  BOVU ISLAND, ZAMBIA

Located upstream from Victoria Falls in the Zambezi River, this tiny slither of an island is a respite from tourist-laden Livingstone. Getting here involves a nerve-racking trip in a dugout canoe across the Zambezi's crocodile-infested waters, but waiting at the other end is Jungle Junction, a rustic refuge consisting of reed and bamboo huts with no phone coverage, TV or internet. Don't be surprised if you are woken in the night by the sound of something rummaging on the riverbank. It will just be a foraging hippo. 

By day, take a sunset cruise in a canoe, join a guided walk to a  village or fish for the ferocious Zambezi tigerfish.

See junglejunction.info; zambiatourism.com.

- Rob McFarland

19  KOH LAOLIANG, THAILAND

Koh Laoliang is that rare thing in Thailand: an island national park surrounded by a marine reserve, with a pristine beach and no bungalows.

It is open for only half the year and even then only 40 people can stay at a time, in  two-person tents, each of which has a vestibule as well as a "bedroom", with two single mattresses, made up with sheets and blankets.

There is electricity at night, when the generator comes on, a fan against the tropical heat, a basin of fresh water to rinse the sand off your feet, showers and toilets in the open-air, bamboo-walled bathroom. It's The Beach, minus the hand-drawn map, the despotic Tilda Swinton and the hordes of day trippers who daily descend on Koh Phi Phi (in Krabi, where the movie was shot).

See laoliangresort.com.

- Louise Southerden

20 CRESTED BUTTE, US

In the former coalmining town of Crested Butte, up in the Elk range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, fast-food restaurants and chain hotels are forbidden.

In this place of lovingly preserved historic structures and 1500 permanent residents, the town's 30-something eateries are all locally owned.

Some businesses even share premises. At the Sunflower, one guy does coffee and breakfast, the building's owner takes over with a lunch business and, in the evenings, other tenants offer farm-to-table dining.

There are unique festivals and parades all year, such as Slushuck and Flaushink.

Although Crested Butte Mountain became a ski destination in the 1960s, the resort village is an unobtrusive three kilometres from Crested Butte. You can even walk between Crested Butte and Aspen on the 18-kilometre Maroon Bells Trail over a 3800-metre pass. 

See skicb.com and gunnisoncrestedbutte.com.

- Elspeth Callender

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